The Four Keys to Helping At-Risk Kids
There are many different ways to prepare a delicious loaf of bread, soup, or stew. Similar to this, there is no single recipe for lowering the level of risk in students’ lives. However, it appears that there are some essential components to the process.
Following the findings of recent studies on the subject, I’ve come up with four fundamental ingredients that seem to correspond well with the stories and observations that people have shared with me in response to previous blog posts that I’ve written. Take a look and see what you think.
Caring, Sustained Relationships
One of the shortcomings of our educational structure is that, while relationships with teachers, particularly in secondary school, maybe caring, they are not always easy to keep going indefinitely. However, relationships that are both caring and stable are essential for at-risk youth. They must develop a sense of trust with their teachers and be allowed to communicate the complexity, frustrations, and positive aspects of their lives both inside and outside of school. Once a strong relational foundation has been established, an adult will be well-positioned to provide students with advice that will stand the test of time and be cherished by them. Students will not place their trust in an adult simply because he or she works as a counselor, psychologist, or social worker in their school. We must first earn it through the development of a relationship.
Students’ career and personal goals are frequently unrealistic because they are based on what they have learned from popular culture. Kids regard sensationalistic media portrayals of exceptionalism as normative, and, in many cases, as desirable and attainable goals and ideals. We can assist students in developing realistic and attainable career, personal, and educational goals by building on a foundation of caring relationships. This does not imply that the objectives are not difficult to achieve. The most motivating goals are those that are within our grasp if we put forth a little effort to achieve them. Only someone who is intimately acquainted with a student and who is deeply concerned about his or her well-being will be able to assist that student in developing attainable goals.
Realistic, Hopeful Pathways
Students are unable to achieve attainable objectives on their own. Students, like the rest of us, are more likely to move forward if they believe that there is a clear path to follow. You can imagine how useless MapQuest or similar services would be if you could enter your starting point and destination but did not receive a road map detailing how to get from one location to the other!
The same is true for students. They will require adult assistance to construct realistic pathways, ideally with guardrails. As Merle Schwartz of the Character Education Partnership points out, they also require someone to reassure them that they have what he refers to as “leeway and forgiveness,” which is the knowledge that straying from the path will not result in them losing sight of their goals.
We must recognize the difficulty of embarking on a new path and prepare students for obstacles as well as support them when they encounter difficulties. This can be extremely difficult because some of the students’ erroneous actions will violate school rules, and in some cases, even legal boundaries. According to recent reports in the New York Times, we must treat such cases on an individual basis and with discernment, rather than applying a formulaic approach that has resulted in the United States having the highest school dropout rates and, proportionately, the largest prison population of any developed country. This is how, all too often, promising lives are thrown away after showing promise.
Engaging School and Community Settings
With all of the emphasis placed on the importance of student engagement, it’s easy to lose sight of the specific factors that contribute to students’ feelings of being engaged. When students have opportunities to receive positive recognition and to make positive contributions, they can spend time in environments where teamwork is encouraged, and they can receive assistance in learning new skills that they find valuable and helpful in their lives, they have the feeling of being engaged in a setting or group. School and community settings that are engaging have logos, mottos, missions, and other tangible items that give students a sense of belonging and pride in their surroundings.
Students from disadvantaged backgrounds, in particular, benefit from spending time in engaging environments both in and out of school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. After-school programs that are linked to the school as well as community programs — such as Boys and Girls Clubs, 4-H, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and faith-based youth groups — provide more opportunities for students to form positive relationships with caring adults and, potentially, supportive peers, compared to traditional after-school programs.
One distinguishing characteristic of mentors in nonschool settings is that they can frequently assist students in learning the rules of the game to achieve success in school. When working with students in after-school and community settings, mentors are often in a better position to communicate clearly about the potential consequences of their actions as well as the behaviors that they need to change and how to change those behaviors. Additionally, they can provide feedback on how students are progressing, allowing them to operate in an environment of continuous improvement. Adults who are not part of the formal school system often have a better understanding of students’ lives outside of school and can assist them in finding safe havens during the school day.
You are invited to share your recipe variations with me now that you have finished reading this. What do you feel is missing from your experience that you believe is critical? Do you have any suggestions for how to get your hands on these ingredients most quickly and efficiently? Many of these concepts are already present in the best evidence-based programs about social and emotional learning and character education, as well as in project learning and other concepts featured on Edutopia.org, to name a few examples. Your suggestions for alternative sources of ingredients, on the other hand, will be just as beneficial to readers. Greetings and best wishes!